V.I. History: Elizabeth Hendrickson, First Lady of Virgin Islands Empowerment

Virgin Islands native Elizabeth Hendrickson was a prominent member of the Harlem Tenants League, some of whose members are seen in this 1929 New York City Daily News photo protesting high rents and unsanitary conditions. (Clipping from newspapers.com)

It was the summer of 1926. Helen Jacobs and her husband, both natives of St. Thomas, were living in a basement apartment in New York City’s Harlem district when they had an unexpected encounter with the stateside legal system – and, consequently, with a woman who spent much of her life advocating for fairness.

According to a front-page article in The New York Age newspaper edition of Aug. 14, 1926, an unnamed woman suspected of “soliciting men” gave the detective following her the slip not far from the Jacobs’ home. The detective knocked on their door, his gun drawn and was greeted by Helen Jacobs who screamed.

“Believing it to be a hold-up, [her husband] pounced on the detective, relieved him of his gun and administered a few blows,” according to the newspaper account.

The result was both man and wife were arrested for assaulting an officer.

And Elizabeth Anna Hendrickson, president of the American West Indians Ladies Aid Society, swung into action. The AWILAS – originally the Danish West Indians Ladies Aid Society – took up a collection for the Jacobs’ defense fund. There also were plans for a “mass meeting,” according to the newspaper account.

Whether the move was successful is not clear. What is clear is that Hendrickson was a lifelong champion of civil rights, racial justice and support for Virgin Islanders, both in the islands and the states.

She’s typically described as part of the scores of Virgin Islanders and West Indians who were prominent in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s. But she is often overshadowed by her male counterparts who made names for themselves in the first half of the 20th century, people like Rothschild Francis, Ashley L. Totten and Casper Holstein.

Hendrickson was still a child when she left her native Virgin Islands for New York, where she lived most of her life, but, according to several sources, she always maintained ties with her homeland.

The late Ruth Moolenaar devoted a page to Hendrickson in her book “Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders.”

Moolenaar gives her nickname as “Lizzy” and says she was born to Elizabeth Caroline and Fritz W. Hendrickson on St. Croix on Dec. 13, 1884, before the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States in 1917. She was sent to live with her aunt, Rosaline Fredericks, in New York; Moolenaar says she was 12 at the time, some other sources say 11.

Her aunt stressed the importance of education; Hendrickson went to public schools in New York and then, according to Moolenaar, “through the humanitarian efforts of such popular leaders as Frank Crosswaith, Hubert Harrison and A. Phillip Randolph she won a scholarship to the Rand School of Social Sciences” where she excelled in public speaking.

She gained some notoriety as a street-corner speaker. In “Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900-1930,” Irma Watkins-Owens describes the New York street corner as “the place where new social movements gained a hearing and recruited supporters.”

A clipping from the New York Age newspaper references Elizabeth Hendrickson, a Crucian who became an activist and historic Virgin Islands figure.  (Clipping from newspapers.com)

Moolenaar says Hendrickson was especially influenced by the reformer Randolph, who was involved in improving working conditioners for laborers and focused attention on opposing racial discrimination.

“Because she kept in touch with happenings in the Virgin Islands, she was alerted to reports of racial discrimination occurring in the islands during the period of the naval administration,” Moolenaar says.

Just two years after the transfer of the islands to the U.S., and the installation of U.S. naval rule, Hendrickson was part of a group of V.I. expats in New York who formed the Virgin Islands Protective League and lobbied the federal government on behalf of the new territory.

She and Totten, as delegates of the League, traveled to the Virgin Islands in January 1920, ahead of a joint congressional commission designed to study the situation. V.I. historian Gregory Raymond La Motta, says the two met with islanders and then testified before the visiting congressmen, reporting “no substantial opposition to Navy rule.”

In his doctoral dissertation, “The Americanization of the Virgin Islands 1917-1946: Politics and Class Struggle During the First Thirty Years of American Rule,” La Motta says Totten angered radicals in the territory who accused him of “fraternizing with rich islanders,” of confusing race consciousness with race hatred and for advising that islanders should strive to make a good impression on the congressional commission.

“[H]is remarks offended even his co-delegate, Elizabeth Hendrickson,” La Motta wrote, and their quarrel eventually led to the end of the Virgin Islands Protective League.

Besides the Protective League and AWILAS, Hendrickson was also involved with the Harlem Tenants League and the Catholic Relief Organization for Virgin Islanders at home and in Harlem.

She also was instrumental in getting support for Francis to establish his newspaper, the Emancipator. Moolenaar says Hendrickson used her contacts with influential people to secure funding for the effort, an assertion supported by another V.I. historian, the late Isaak Dookhan, in an article entitled “The American Civil Liberties Union in the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

Dookham says the ACLU was involved in many V.I. affairs, including financial assistance to Francis. In footnotes, he cites correspondence between Hendrickson and Roger N. Baldwin, the then-director of the ACLU.

Most accounts that focus on Hendrickson’s work say little or nothing about her private life. Wikipedia’s brief biography adds that she had a “love child” by G. E. Willett, the son of a Quaker family from Quebec and that she became a member of the Quaker organization.

She died in 1946. Per Moolenaar, she was eulogized “as one of the first native females to actively participate in the struggles for progress for her people, both on the mainland and in the territory.”

Editor’s Note: The Source was unable to locate a photo of Elizabeth Anna Hendrickson for this story and would be grateful if any reader can provide one.